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Image of a brain

Rightly or wrongly, examinations are partly a test of memory. Pupils must thoroughly learn vocabulary, factual details in case studies and technical terms to the point that they can be recalled without effort.

Beyond simple recall of information, pupils need to completely understand but also remember techniques for solving problems and recall ideas and their connections to other ideas and to their applications.

Many people would like examinations to be less reliant on feats of memory and more a test of skill. Separating understanding and remembering (knowledge) is quite hard, however, as creativity, intelligence and curiosity are all enhanced by simply having a greater store of knowledge.

The physicist Richard Feynman thought a lot about the difference between knowledge and understanding and said, “You can know the name of a bird in all the languages of the world, but when you’re finished, you’ll know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird…so let’s look at the bird and see what it’s doing – that’s what counts. I learned very early the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something.”

This quote or similar are often used to belittle the idea that remembering what things are called and simple factual recall is useful. Of course, knowing the name of something is quite different to understanding the ‘thing’ itself. But Feynman goes on to say “knowing the names of things is useful if you want to talk to somebody else – so you can tell them what you’re talking about.” Names are a short-hand in communication. More than that, however, names are often a short-hand for ideas and the rich cultural debate that accompanies them: the words ‘Brexit’, ‘climate change’ or ‘gender’ stimulate us to recall arguments, facts and experiences. In some cases, it is difficult even to think about ideas if we have not the vocabulary to describe and discuss them.

Interestingly there is some evidence that relying on the internet reduces the amount of information we retain: subconsciously, if our brain knows that we can simply look things up it is less likely to remember them. This leads on to a larger debate around whether the internet is making us less clever. The outlines of this entertaining debate may be found here.

Returning to memory, I have started talking to my Fifth Year Physics class about revision and the best way to make use of the available time before the mock examinations in January and the GCSE examinations next summer. I have also read quite a bit recently about how memories are formed and how we retrieve them even in stressful situations (examinations). How do we go from struggling to remember a fact to effortlessly recalling it months later together with all the associated ideas and details?

The trick, of course, is to move the fact from our short-term memory, which can only hold 4 or 5 pieces of information, to our long-term memory which is essentially limitless. In addition, our long-term memory can link the fact to many others so that all can be recalled at the same time. So, here are my three top-tips for revision, all of which are rooted in neuroscience:

1. Space out your studying. As everyone knows, cramming at the last minute for a vocabulary test may get you through the test but a few days later you won’t remember any of it. This graphic may help to make this point.

This means teachers should recap the previous lesson at the start of the next lesson as well as the lesson after that, the following week, the following month and finally a couple of months later.

It is important to sleep properly before you revise (so that you stay awake) but also after you revise (so that your brain can make the neural connections needed to form the memory). It also seems that partly forgetting something and then struggling to remember it strengthens the memory and reinforces the neural connections so it is best not to look something up straightaway.

2. Test yourself regularly. Testing is often despised by the educational community because of worries about the stress of high-stakes testing. Frequent low-stakes testing (quizzes, whether short answer or multiple choice) however has many benefits for learning. Testing obviously identifies gaps in knowledge but it also seems to help the brain organise the knowledge and makes it easier to apply the knowledge in different contexts as well as helping us remember things. Sometimes teachers test only at the end of a module before moving on to the next. Another approach is to retest some of the previous material at each test. Consider the scheme below with 4 topics and 5 tests; which testing scheme is better, particularly if the cumulative unit tests can be weighted towards the more recently taught topics? The same principle may go for revision: start with a few facts and then gradually add in more and more but continue to test everything and not just the new facts.

3. Connect the fact with something important to you. If we are learning something that engages us emotionally, we are more likely to remember it. From a scientific point of view, when something is important to us, dopamine is released into the brain, which causes the brain to prioritise this information. Several pupils at SGS can tell me enormous numbers of details about Stockport County whilst struggling to recall even basic facts about some subjects. Clearly not everything can be connected to football (and such an illustrious team) but looking at stories that incorporate the facts, engaging with relevant experiences and understanding why the points are important will all help retention.